MLS commissioner Don Garber was here on Monday to attend an event for the Vancouver Board of Trade, but beforehand, he took some time to speak with members of the local press.
Many topics were discussed, but above all else, Garber expressed his excitement in having one of the most storied soccer franchises in North America return to prominence.
“It’s exciting to be in a town where people get the game, where they understand the sport and are connected to the Whitecaps,” said Garber. “We don’t have people questioning the viability of the league or the strength of the sport like we do in many other places. There is just a lot of pent up interest and anticipation, and still some open questions as to what it could be, and that’s very exciting.”
While professional soccer has been played in Vancouver since the 1970s, Garber said that there is good reason for the team’s increased attention now that they’ve joined MLS.
“It’s an elevated level of respect that comes with a high level of competition and the demands and challenges of raised expectations,” Garber said.
The standard for success has been set very high by the Whitecaps’ I-5 rivals from Seattle, something that Garber said he never anticipated happening.
“When we were launching the Seattle team, we had no idea that it would turn out the way it did,” said the MLS commissioner. “It’s far exceeded our expectations on every measure, and I feel that there’s a bit of that here.”
One of the biggest reasons for optimism is the Whitecaps’ ownership group, whom Garber stated “could be our most engaged ownership group.” He said that CEO Paul Barber is in contact with the MLS office “two or three times a day,” and that part-owner Jeff Mallett is very involved with the league’s media activities.
Garber added that the Whitecaps' devotion was obvious at the MLS Cup in Seattle two years ago.
“I was in a [luxury] box, and I was warm and dry, and Greg [Kerfoot] and Jeff Mallett were sitting in the rain [in the stands] as fans.”
Among the club’s biggest off-field achievements thus far is its partnership agreement with telecommunications giant Bell Canada. Garber explained that the club’s rights agreement, which is different than the broadcast agreement with TSN that was announced on Monday, is one of the most lucrative of its kind.
“The Bell deal is one of the biggest commercial deals that one of our teams has ever done,” stated Garber. “It is one of the larger non-media, stand-alone sports sponsorships in North America, and one that any pro league would be proud of.”
Garber stressed that he’s good at avoiding predictions, but when asked if he thinks an MLS Cup victory could replicate the scene in Vancouver after Whitecaps FC won the 1979 NASL Soccer Bowl and returned to a parade of 100,000 people, he didn’t hesitate to respond.
“I do, absolutely,” said Garber. “I think it would be big.”